The Frustratingly Poor Quality of Press Coverage
The whole world now knows about Father Stephen Kiesle of Oakland, the priest who tied up young boys and molested them sexually and whose request to be defrocked came before then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The press is swarming with assertions that, as the Washington Post headlined its story, "Future pope balked at defrocking priest." This, we are led to believe, is the smoking gun. Raztinger signed the letter in 1985. That is HIS signature. Case closed. Here are the documents.
In talking to reporters, I raised the question: Why was this case in front of Ratzinger in the first place. It does not make sense. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was given jurisdiction over cases of the "graviora delicta" of sexual abuse only in 2001. Before that time, it is a bit unclear who had immediate jurisdiction in Rome, although one point – which I also made to reporters – went unmentioned then and in all the reporting about the future Pope’s role in handling sex abuse cases, namely, the local bishop has the authority to remove a priest from the clerical state. Recourse to Rome is necessary only to dispense a priest from his vow of celibacy, so that he can subsequently be married in the Church.
Perhaps, some of the confusion has to do with the translation from Latin that the original AP story procured from the chairman of the Classics Department at USC which translates "Hoc dicasterium" as "this court." I do not question the Chairman of the Classics Department’s command of Latin, but a dicastery in the Vatican is not a court, but an agency or department. The CDF did not then and does not now serve as a canonical court.
But, then it hit me: I was asking about the dog that had not barked. The documents exchanged between the diocesan officials in Oakland and the CDF do not mention "graviora delicta." The case was presented as a priest seeking laicization. As well, the documents do not paint the profound ugliness of the priest’s crimes. The first document posted at the Times is a 1981 letter from a parish priest who worked with Kiesle. It says that Kiesle lacked "maturity and responsibility and spirituality" and says he only became a priest to please his over-bearing mother. The second document, also from 1981 and also from a priest who worked with Kiesle, says that Kiesle’s family was opposed to his becoming a priest and claims that Kiesle was irresponsible and had trouble relating to adults. The letter refers to "the eventual difficulty that Father Kiesle had with the law because of his relationship to young children" but there are no details.
The third document finally is explicit. In the "Votum Episcopi," the document by which the bishop demonstrates his support for Father Kiesle’s request for laicization, Bishop John Cummins notes that Kiesle had been arrested for molesting six boys, had pleaded "nolo contendere" and received a three-year suspended sentence. Three facts jump out. First, the request for defrocking was made by Father Kiesle, not by the bishop. Second, the priest had already been removed from active ministry, so the case did not seem urgent insofar as protecting children in the future was concerned (remember, Kiesle was only asking CDF to dispense him from his vows). Third, the response from and punishment by the civil authorities were not as severe as the crime warranted. As we now know, very few people understood the nature of pedophilia, otherwise civil authorities would not have imposed a three- or five-year statute of limitations, and the penalties for what amounted to rape would have been more severe. It turns out that the emotional scars of sex abuse are worse than physical scars of physical abuse, not least because they are often unseen.
One other part of Cummins’s letter to Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have escaped the attention of the assembled press corps. The bishop notes that the trial generated "a great deal of publicity surrounding his conduct." The bishop says that all the local papers covered the story. So, the idea that Cardinal Raztinger subsequently dragged his feet to avoid publicity is an odd charge, one that the documents do not support. When Cardinal Ratzinger replied that the "good of the universal Church" should be considered in adjudicating the case, he was evidently not trying to prevent adverse publicity. That publicity had already occurred.
What, then, was Ratzinger’s concern? Why did he not simply grant Father Kiesle’s request for laicization and be done with it? As noted above, the extraordinary nature of Father Kiesle’s crimes is not at all clear from the correspondence, which uses euphemisms to describe what amounted to child rape. The weak punishment by the civil authorities certainly would not indicate the outrages this priest perpetrated. Additionally, the initiative is coming from the priest, not from the bishop, as one might expect in a case of this sort.
Another factor explaining Ratzinger’s invocation of the "good of the universal Church" was a change of policy going on at the Vatican in the early 1980s. In the years after the Council, many priests asked to be laicized. George Weigel, in his biography of Pope John Paul II, writes: "Pope Paul VI had granted more than 32,000 requests from priests who had asked to be released from their vows and returned to lay status – the greatest exodus from the priesthood since the Reformation. Soon after his election, John Paul had stopped the routine granting of these ‘decrees of laicization.’" John Paul was especially concerned about younger priests seeking to be defrocked, and very few such requests were granted to priests under the age of 40. It is telling that Father Kiesle’s request for laicization was granted as soon as he did turn 40.
What had Pope John Paul, and Cardinal Ratzinger, worried was that the sacramental character of priestly ordination was being obscured by the ease with which priests were being dispensed from their vows. Catholics do not see the priesthood as a career choice, to be set aside if something better comes along. When a man is ordained, the Church believes that God affects an ineffaceable and permanent change upon the ordinand, just as the Church believes that bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. Even a priest who is laicized retains the power to say Mass and absolve from sins in confession, even though the Church strips him of the authority to do so.
Had the Oakland case been presented as an instance of "graviora delicta" I do not doubt that the laicization would have been faster. Had the bishop or other officials in Oakland made clear the heinous nature of the crimes, I do not doubt Cardinal Ratzinger would have responded differently. I also do not doubt that even the mention of the civil trial involving charges of molestation should have caused Cardinal Ratzinger to find out more about the case - oops, that is precisely what he did and for which he now stands accused of dragging his feet. I also suspect that this case, which stands astride the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, may have been impeded because the canonical officials in Oakland and in Rome were still becoming acquainted with its provisions.
It is the job of religion reporters to not only report on information but to provide the context for interpreting that information. The documents in the Oakland case raise certain obvious questions that the press ignores or fails to perceive – I do not know which is worse. I do not "blame" the media for the sex abuse crisis and I do blame the Vatican for doing such a horrendous job of answering the current questions and for seeing themselves as the victim. Nonetheless, I believe the press corps is guilty of shoddy reporting. The documents in the Oakland case are no "smoking gun" but they are presented as such. The feeding frenzy among the press corps has taken hold and everybody wants to be Woodward and Bernstein. Shame on them.
Michael Sean Winters